Writing is largely a solitary task. Sometimes, we spend so much time wrapped inside our own brains, that it can be useful to get a nudge from someone else.

This post consists of five prompts for writing fiction. The focus: getting to know your character.

Unless we’re writing something that’s largely biographical, we can’t be expected to fully know and understand our characters the moment we sit down to write anything. The connection between author and character is like any relationship: it grows and develops over time. Every time you write, you get to know them a little better. They become a little more real.

The following prompts are not necessarily intended to become part of a novel – although of course they may do. They’re more like dates, or date ideas. Places to take your character so you can gaze into their eyes and get to know them better.

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Twenty questions

The first prompt is basically the first date. It’s about getting to know your character at a fairly surface level – the sorts of things you might find out about another person if you’d only spent an hour or so getting to know them.

The exact questions you ask are up to you, but don’t make them too heavy. Keep it light, for now. Things like, what’s your favourite colour? Or, what type of food do you hate? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where do you live? Do you prefer books or films? That sort of thing.

Make a list of twenty questions, imagine you’re sitting your character down in front of you, and jot down the answers. Some these answers might be quite banal, and some may open interesting doors. Either way, you’ll have learned enough that, on the next date, you can start to dig deeper.

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2 – Something your character wears

What we choose to wear says a lot about who we are. Do we dress to impress? Or do we just throw on the first thing we see in the morning. Do we dress carefully, but cultivate a style that looks effortless and unconcerned? Do we spend a lot of money on designer clothes – and if so, is that something we can afford, or something we have to make sacrifices for? Do we take pride in only shopping from charity shops?

If we apply this to a fictional character, it very quickly becomes about more than just surface dressing. A character who spends a lot of time cultivating an eclectic style probably cares a lot what other people think of them, and wants to be seen as individual and independent. Dig a little deeper, and this might arise from a deep insecurity and a fear of being overlooked. A character who puts very little thought into their appearance may be extremely self-confident, and totally unconcerned by what other people think of them. Then again, they may in fact be so isolated that they believe there’s no point in caring about their appearance, as nobody else will. A character who refuses to buy clothes from charity shops may have a fear of being seen as poor, or they may be so admiring of their own body that they want only the most exclusive designer clothing to adorn it.

So what does your character wear?

It might help to focus on one particular item, which exemplifies the type of clothing they tend to wear. It could be their favourite item. It could be the thing they wear most often.

Whatever it is, describe it in as much detail as possible. Describe how it fits your character’s body. How do they feel when they wear it? How did they come to own it? How do other people see it? Get to know your character through what they wear.

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3 – An object your character owns

In the same way that we can learn a lot about a person by the things they wear, so we can learn things by the objects they own. Particularly, by the objects they hold dear.

Theoretically, we can learn from the everyday objects, such as what sort of bowls and plates and cups they have. Is it antique bone china? Does everything match? Is it plain white crockery from IKEA? If they’re quite clumsy, then they may own the remnants of multiple sets. If they own everyday crockery, alongside a more expensive set that they only use for certain guests, what does that say about the character and how they relate to those around them?

All of these things tell us something about the character. But I want to dig deeper. If we choose the right object, we can find out key details about who this person is. It’s a cliché perhaps, but clichés are clichés for a reason: what object would this character save from a fire?

It has to be an object (it can’t be a loved one or a pet), but other than that, anything goes. Describe the object. What is it? What is it like? What does it mean to them? If it helps (and it may do), write the scene where they save the object from the fire. How desperate are they to rescue it, and what’s driving that desperation?

Again, this scene doesn’t have to make it into the finished novel. This is just a date.

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4 – Something that happened before they were born

This prompt is all about putting your character in context. Finding out the ingredients that went into the melting pot of their personality. Obviously, a lot of things will have happened before your character was born. What we want is a key event: something that shaped their life, before they even existed.

This could be something straightforward, like their conception – how did their parents meet? Did they know each other well? Was the pregnancy intentional?

Alternatively, it could be something on a more global scale – a political event that shaped the society your character was born into.

Whether it’s something big or small, make it something that affects your character. Something where, had these events been different, your character’s world and probably their personality would have been different too.

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5 – Put your character in a tricky situation

This final prompt builds on the third one, which had your character desperately saving something from a fire. The theory here is much the same: that we discover a lot about what drives a person in times of peril. Of course, that peril doesn’t always have to be the character’s own.

In this prompt, put your character on a bus full of people. A drunk old man is swaying violently and muttering under his breath, when suddenly he collapses. How does your character respond?

The reason I find this prompt useful is that it not only shows you how your character acts in a crisis, but it also gives an insight into how they act among people they don’t know, and how they behave in a crowd. There’s so much to unpack in a scene like this. It’s probably the most intense date you could ask for.

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And those are the five! I hope you find them useful. Good luck, and happy writing!

Happy November!

If we weren’t certain before, then I think it’s now safe to say that winter is finally here. It’s dark in the early evening, and I’m scraping frost off the car every morning.

All of which makes me think of time.

Time is something that is key to writing. After all, words exist within time. Meter measures out a pace and governs the passage of time within a poem. We’re taught early on that stories have a beginning, middle and end (whether or not they are told in that order), and these also serve to govern the time of the story.

So this month, I want to create a time-related prompt. Specifically, this prompt is related to the before-ness of time.

I want you to write about the moment before something happens.

It could be something joyous. It could be something tragic, something dramatic, something that will leave the world reeling. Perhaps a house fire. Perhaps the moment before a child falls off a cliff, or the split second before a team scores a touchdown. Maybe the moment before Neil Armstrong’s boot touches the surface of the moon, or the second before impact when the meteorite wipes out the dinosaurs.

Whatever it is, make it something big. Something significant – either to the world at large, or to the world of a single character.

But here’s the catch: I don’t want you to describe the event. You can mention it, if you like, to add weight and context to your piece. But make the focus of your writing the moment before. When everything weighs in the balance. When the scales could tip in either direction and everything echoes through possibility. When the world is still unchanged.

Describe it in detail. Image a freeze-frame, in that one second before the event. Once you’ve frozen the frame, then press play, but in slow motion. Picture the build-up to the big event happening frame by frame. Notice everything. Is there a shadow of foreboding? Maybe, maybe not. The weight of the piece comes from knowing what’s about to happen next.

Good luck, and happy writing!

October is the month of Halloween, so for this month’s prompt I’m suggesting a little bit of necromancy.

One of the things that always fascinates me about poetry (and about writing in general) is the way it is always a balance between the known and unknown, the explained and the imagined, the writing and the reading. How much is the writer telling us, and how much do we have to work out for ourselves? How much is recognisable and familiar, and how much is completely new to us? A piece of writing where we recognise nothing may be a great feat of imagination, but it requires too big an ask of the reader. On the flip side, a piece of writing where everything is so familiar that there’s nothing to surprise us may be easy to understand, but it does little to retain our interest. Writing, like so many forms of creativity, is about balance.

One way to achieve this balance is to take something recognisable and give it a new angle. Set a familiar story in a new location. Pick up a person we all know and drop them in a completely alien environment. Put Cinderella on a Blackpool hen party. Sleeping Beauty in a coma in a hospital ward. Hansel & Gretel in a refugee camp.

This is something Carol Ann Duffy does in a number of poems in The World’s Wife, giving stories and myths and historical figures a contemporary setting. In his newest collection, The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage sets an episode from The Odyssey in Poundland.

So that’s my challenge for this month:

Take a figure from history, or a story, or a myth, and put them somewhere in today’s world.

How do they react to what’s around them? You could write the poem with your character confused by modern technological developments, as they probably would be if they’d been time-travelled across the years. Or you could keep the character the same, but put them in the modern world as though it’s their natural habitat. What new light does this process shed on the character? What new light does it shed on the modern setting?

Good luck, and happy writing.

With The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash opening in Edinburgh this week, I’m thinking in dramatic terms at the moment. BUT that doesn’t mean that you have to write drama for this prompt. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t…

This month, it’s all about the detail. It’s about observation and imagination. It’s about exploration on the most minute level.

This month, I’m challenging you to describe the events of a single second.

It’s up to you what happens in that second. It could be nothing much more than you, sitting on the sofa looking out of the window. Or it could be something much more dramatic, like a gunshot or jumping from a diving board.

Whatever moment you choose, try to imagine every single detail of that one action. Think of it like a single second of film.

What is your body doing (or the body of the person in the scene, if it isn’t you). How do the muscles move? What triggers them? Is it a reflex reaction, or the product of long deliberation? Is the action reluctant or keen? Are the limbs heavy, or quick and agile? What’s going through your mind / the character’s mind? It’s surprising how many things a person can think in one second. There are our active thoughts – the things we’re conscious of thinking, that we might narrate in a stream-of-consciousness. Then there are the other more subtle associations. The smell of herbs that half-take us back to that restaurant in Italy; the way the light catches the window, which makes us feel all warm inside. The things we feel without actually thinking them aloud.

Then of course, there’s what’s happening in the rest of the scene. Are the surroundings changing? Is there something happening far away that affects the mood? What happened just before? What’s about to happen next? All these things have an effect on the moment.

So that’s my challenge. Tell the story of a second. The whole story. In a single second.

Good luck!

Poetry has a very close relationship to sound. It’s one of the things that sets it apart from prose, which is often read internally; poetry changes so much when it’s performed out loud. With its long association with an oral tradition, with ballads and song, with rhythm, meter and rhyme, the very act of writing poetry becomes an act of engaging with sound.

‘Poetry begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised: the hawker has to make himself heard above the market hubbub, the knife-grinder has to call the cook out into the street, the storyteller has to address a whole village, the bard must command the admiration of the court. The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm.’ – James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

I actually ran a school workshop about poetry and sound just the other week. I was working with my regular group of Yr 4 pupils at St Patrick’s School in Workington, where we looked at John Clare’s poem, ‘Pleasant Sounds’. We talked about Clare’s use of ‘sound words’ (such as ‘pattering’ and ‘whizzing’), and about how some of the sound words he used were unexpected, like ‘flirt’ and ‘halloos’. Then the children thought about a favourite place, and wrote about all the different sounds they could hear in that place.

Which brings me onto this month’s challenge:

Write about the next sound you hear.

It could be a large sound, or a very small one. Whatever it is, I want you to focus on it. Describe it in as much detail as you can.

Start by describing the sound itself – what are the best words for the sound you can hear? Is it loud or quiet? Does it invade your ears, or do you really have to strain to hear it? Is it continuous, or short and sharp like a puncture?

Then expand the picture out from there. What’s making the sound? Can you see it? What does it look like? Whatever’s making it: does it change as it makes the sound? How does it affect the other sounds around it? How does it affect you? Does it remind you of something else? Another time you heard it, perhaps, or something else that makes a similar noise?

The trick with this exercise is focus. Focus all your energy and attention on that one sound, and let the detail fill the words.

As always, I’d love to see the results. Good luck, and happy writing!

I like to write in cafes. I’ll be honest: that’s largely because I have a fondness for cake, and scones, and hot chocolate with marshmallows. And because coffee can be a great way to wake up the writing bits of the brain.

But it’s also about the cafe as a creative space. Writing can be such a lonely pursuit that it can be easy to feel isolated. For me, cafes represent a half-way house between the solitary and the social. In a cafe, it’s possible to be alone and yet in the middle of a bustling crowd. The perfect set-up for people watching.

So that’s my task for this writing prompt:

Sit in a cafe & eat cake.

Ok, the cake bit is optional, but the real purpose of sitting in the cafe is to people watch. Pick somebody you don’t know – whether it’s a customer or a member of staff – and write about them. Write their portrait, write their fictional back story, write about where they might live, write about the conversation you overhear, write about yourself in relation to them. It’s up to you what you write, but here’s the catch: your piece of writing should be finished by the time you’ve finished your tea / coffee / hot chocolate with marshmallows, whipped cream & a flake.

And I know, ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ And you can always come back to it later. But for the purposes of this exercise, it’s all about forcing you to write, rather than sitting and looking at the blank page. And I always find that a time limit is one of the best ways to do that.

Good luck!

Oh, and if you’re in Cumbria, here are my top 5 Cumbrian cafes for writing in.

Poetry can be about anything. In many ways, that’s a huge advantage. It gives you freedom to explore any subject that interests you, and to view it through whatever frame seems appropriate. As I like to tell children in my schools workshops, there are no rules in poetry.

But all those options can be a little bit daunting. You know that feeling when you’re looking at a menu and there’s too much to choose from, it’s overwhelming, and suddenly you don’t want to eat anything at all? Sometimes I feel a bit like that about poetry.

So I thought I’d create a prompt that restricts that slightly.

Your goal? To write about something blue.

It can be anything you like – big, small, bright blue, sky blue, azure, navy… Maybe a poem about a shallow coral sea, or the depths of the Pacific. Perhaps the sky on a summer day, or a swimming pool in a fancy hotel. Or maybe it’s a smaller object: a blue bottle, a favourite pair of denim dungarees, bathroom tiles. Perhaps you want to write about blueness in the figurative sense, about being blue, or playing the blues.

Whatever you choose, start with the object and its blueness. Continue writing from there, and see where the poem takes you.

As always, I’d love to see anything you come up with.

Good luck, and happy writing!